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Kelly Cogswell

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Memory and The Freedom Maze

Posted: 01/19/12 06:05 PM ET

The Freedom Maze is a wonderful, ambitious book, 18 years in the writing. Delia Sherman apparently started it just to give one bookish girl an adventure, but when she had to grapple with the complexities of slavery in the U.S., ended up with an important meditation on power and identity. It's marketed to younger readers, but probably only adults will get the nuances.

The story starts simply enough. In the year 1960, a 13-year-old white girl is stuck at her grandmother's house out in the Louisiana bayou, while her newly divorced mother takes a bookkeeping course back in New Orleans. Irritated and bored, she meets a magical creature that she begs for an adventure, preferably involving time travel, and gets zapped to 1860.

The set-up here is important. It may be a hundred years later, but Sophie turns up in exactly the same room, the same house, wearing her same clothes, no altered features or anything. The biggest difference is that the fields, already owned by her family, are now full of sugar cane, and those rotting buildings not far away are in decent repair and full of slaves. When her ancestors see an unknown young girl with the family nose, a suntan, unruly hair, and muddy clothes, they assume she's a young slave sent up from New Orleans by a brother who's not always as Christian as he should be with his female slaves.

One of Sherman's inspirations was a newspaper notice about escaped slaves, one of whom could pass as white. This conceit lets Sherman consider the shifting nature of identity, how "black" and "white" change according to the circumstances. When it comes to society, I am who you say I am. In some ways, it reminded me of Calderon's seventeenth century Spanish play, Life Is A Dream. I could just as easily be a tyrant as a tyrant's prisoner, and had better behave myself because god knows in which position I will wake up tomorrow.

It also allows Sherman to trace the transformation of a "free" person with the entitlements of class and race, into an enslaved one, partly answering the question, "Why did slaves stay slaves, and not just run away when there were no bars on the window?" -- which is a version of, "Why did it take so long for the citizens of Egypt to rise up against the tyrant Mubarak?" or "Why don't abused women leave their violent bastard husbands?"

The story is effective and persuasive, partly because Sherman, a fantasy writer, downplays typical fantasy elements. In earlier books, Changeling or The Fall of the Kings, a collaborative work in her partner, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint series, magic, folklore, and heroic quests were central. In The Freedom Maze, though Sophie is eventually instrumental in helping one slave escape, the little white girl does not heroically lead the slaves out of Egypt. Neither does she have secret powers, or the benefit of magic satchels with tasty snacks.

What Sherman relies on most is the discipline of a fantasy writer's imagination. When you're constructing alternative worlds, you can't use short cuts like a brand of jeans or cell phone to establish social class or character. Sherman does the hard work of building her story detail by detail until her readers really believe in her characters and world. And what world could be stranger than the past when homespun cloth was rough against your skin, and humans owned each other like dogs?

Most of our interactions with what passes for history makes it seem strangely unreal, even fictional. Martin Luther King is cast as a hero, and unlike the traditional heroic quests of folklore, we barely acknowledge his helpers -- much less how he built on earlier advances.

Part of it is laziness on our part. It's easier to pick one man and make him almost mythical than tell the story of a complicated movement that ordinary people pushed forward over generations. Also, memory naturally streamlines things. I can barely remember life before my laptop and there was plenty of it. It requires a leap of imagination even to remember my 13-year-old self dragging a book bag and violin to school way off in Louisville, Ky.

Books like The Freedom Maze remind us that it's a radical act to remember -- or imagine -- the past, which is all history is, and why it's so essential. Not just because we might be doomed to repeat it, but because history enlarges our present lives, situates us in the middle of what came before and what will come after. It makes the world seem less strange, allows us to navigate it better, find our places in it. Maybe even plot a course instead of just plunging ahead randomly. If we can't look back, we can't look forward. We can't even look across the aisle in the subway and see each other.

Read more about Delia Sherman and her partner, Ellen Kushner, in Dykes Outside the Box.